In Troubling Times, Grow With Seeds

seeds and seedlings

Life might seem a bit empty right now, with limitations on our work, school and social activities. But an old Hawaiian proverb says, “When your hands are turned to the soil, you will be full.” So let us keep gardening, the healthy activity that can be done alone or with a loved one. May it fill our spirits as well as our bodies.

Growing edibles begins in earnest now as our soils warm up and the days become longer. Here are some ideas to get started.

Is your soil warm enough to plant?

  • Calculate the soil temperature. Find out the soil warmth by watching the daily highs/lows. Add the daily high and nightly low together, then divide by two. That’s the approximate temperature of open soil. (e.g.: 50+40=90/2=45) It’s more accurate if you do it over the course of a week and then average those, because the soil temp doesn’t move with just one warm day. A soil thermometer will tell you right away if the soil is warm enough to sprout seeds. Most seeds require soil warmed to a depth of 3” to germinate.
  • Temps needed to germinate. Our coolest vegetables (lettuce, peas, chard, parsley, mustard greens, beets, carrots) will sprout in soil as cool as 40 degrees F. Other crops (corn, tomatoes) need at least 50 degrees F, while others (beans, peppers, melons, squashes) need 60 degrees F minimum. Of course, all will sprout faster in soil a little warmer than the minimum.
  • Warm up your soil. You can cover the garden bed for a few days with plastic sheeting to warm it up—but remove the plastic when you begin to plant. That will increase the soil temperature a few degrees above an open garden bed.

“When your hands are turned to the soil, you will be full.”

Start earlier with season extension

  • Raised beds. Are you growing vegetables in a raised bed? If so, the soil may already be getting warmer and drying out, the two key indicators that it will be ready for seeds.
  • Cover the bed. If you have “season extension” covers for your bed, like a cloche or a cold frame, they will really help you get the soil ready. You can plant under season extension two to three weeks earlier than in an open garden bed. But remember to open the device regularly to water the bed so the seeds are kept moist (but not too wet) while sprouting, and so that it doesn’t get too hot under the device on sunny days to wilt the tiny plants.

Is your soil dry enough to plant?

  • Soil readiness test. Here’s an easy test to find out if your soil is ready: Dig up a scoop of soil and pack together a softball-size clump of it in your hands. Hold it in one hand and throw it up in the air about two feet, letting it fall back into your open hand. If it lands with a “splotch!” and water sprays everywhere, it’s still too wet for planting. If it breaks apart easily and crumbles in your hand, it’s dry enough.

If your outdoor garden is not yet ready, you can still start indoors. See our post on Starting Seeds Indoors that includes a list of bioregional seed companies.

Start Seeds Indoors

Stuck at home? Now is a great time to start your edible garden. Many people buy small plants at the nursery, but if that isn’t possible right now, try seeds. Seeds can be started indoors and transplanted out or transferred to larger pots as they grow.

Here are tips on starting seeds.

  • Many seeds can be started in pots indoors and then transplanted out. Try salad greens, peas, broccoli and other brassicas, tomatoes, peppers and squash. Don’t try root crops like beets and carrots—they need to be “direct sown” into the soil.
  • It’s best to use a light seed-starting medium rather than plain garden soil. You can buy it, or make your own with a mixture of compost, peat moss, coco coir, sand and soil—whatever you have available that will be lighter weight than soil. The goal is to make it easier for the seeds to push out of the soil.
  • Plant in very small pots, like “six-packs” of nursery cells, one inch wide by two inches deep. Or use small yogurt containers or take-out food clamshells. Try to have at least two inches of depth.
  • Sow small seed just under the surface of the soil. Bigger seed like peas can be planted deeper.
  • Keep the seed bed consistently moist but not soggy.
  • Keep the seed tray in a warm place while seeds are germinating. A seedling heat mat is a great tool for the avid gardener.
  • Place the seed tray in a sunny indoor spot once the seedlings appear.
  • Be careful when watering. Use a bike water bottle or small watering can to gently water at the soil level.
  • Cool-season crops like salad greens and peas can be planted in the garden when they have two or three sets of “true leaves.” (The first leaves to appear are called the “seed leaves.”)
  • Warm-season crops like tomatoes and peppers should be “potted up” to larger pots and kept indoors until the weather is warmer, with nights consistently at or above 50 degrees F.
  • Before transferring any seedlings to the garden, they need to be “hardened off.” This is done by setting the seed tray outside for an hour one day, two hours the next, etc., for 5 to 7 days. This gets them used to the weather so they will survive better in the open garden. If planting in a warm raised bed or under cover, this step is less important.
  • Water consistently once the seeds are in the garden to help them set their roots and get off to the best start. The surface of the soil should just start to get a bit dry before watering again.

Order your seeds from one of our wonderful bioregional seed companies. Be patient as they are probably experiencing a high volume of orders.

Here are some seed companies to try:

First Seed Swap of 2020 Set for Jan. 25, Two More on Feb. 8

Sprout some new ideas for your edible garden! Come to the annual Great Seattle Seed Swap hosted at the Phinney Center by the King County Seed Lending Library.

Oregon Sugar Pod II peas

The Northwest Seattle swap will be Saturday, January 25, 2-4 p.m. in the Community Center of the PNA’s Brick Building (lower parking lot).

If you can’t make that one,two more swaps will be held on Saturday, February 8, one in northeast Seattle and the other in the Snoqualmie Valley town of Duvall. (See our Events page for details on these swaps.)

Along with seeds of favorite vegetables, you will find enthusiastic fellow gardeners eager to share their best varieties. Nearly half of the 100 attendees at last year’s Northwest Seattle swap brought their own seeds. But bringing seeds to swap is not required.

What’s more, generous seed organizations are sharing seed with us. Oregon’s Adaptive Seeds, Bellingham’s Resilient Seeds and the Organic Seed Alliance from the Olympic Peninsula are all contributing unique varieties for Seattle gardeners to try. (A huge note of thanks to them for their contributions!)

At the swap, stick around to learn about both ends of the gardening year, from sowing to harvest–and beyond. There will be short workshops on seed saving and other gardening topics. If you learn to save some of your own seeds at harvest time, you can make a deposit to the library’s seed supply at next year’s swap!

Tilth Alliance, Seattle Tree Fruit Society, Sustainable Ballard and the PNA Tool Lending Library will be on hand to share information and more gardening opportunities. Also, there will be a table of seed catalogs and books for research, and a table with supplies for cleaning and processing your seed.

Bring your edible garden seed to share if you have it. It can be commercial or home-grown seed, but please follow these guidelines:

  • Share only seeds of edible plants that your fellow gardeners would grow from seed, such as annual vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers.
  • If donating packaged seed, it should be organic or open-pollinated or heirloom.
  • If donating home-saved seed, please clean it off the stems or stalks and bring only the seed.
  • You can clean your seed at the swap. We will have screens, and buckets available.
  • All shared seed should be fresh, within three years of purchase or saving.
  • Please label all donations with seed type, variety if known, and year it was grown/saved.
Purple peas in flower

We hope you can join us to learn and share the joys of growing our own food from seed. The seed swaps are free and open to all.

See event updates on our Facebook event page.

Next Swap Set For Saturday March 30

If you missed our first seed swaps, don’t worry! Just head over to northeast Seattle on Saturday, March 30 for “Hands On! A Community Skills Share-Fair.” We’ll be there with the seeds from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The free Skills Fair is presented by Sustainable Northeast Seattle, NE Seattle Tool Library and Meadowbrook Community Center and is being held at the center, 10517 35th Ave NE, Seattle. It offers an amazing array of DIY tips and skill-building workshops running from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Paige with shoppers

Gardening tips abound. Learn to build productive soil, hammer together a worm bin, grow micro-greens, propagate houseplants or succulents, cultivate mushrooms, keep Mason bees, identify weeds and cultivate a compost bin. Whew! Better bring a notebook.

But that’s not all – far from it. Imagine yourself learning emergency toilet repair or “stop the bleed” techniques. If you know those things, how about simple bike repair, binding a book, or the basics of electrical wiring, pipe soldering and drywall repair.

As if that isn’t enough, there will be a lunch speaker talking about the Beacon Food Forest and buffet taco bar.

Sounds like an amazing day. But you had us at “Seed Swap!”

Sharing Tiny Treasures for This Year’s Edible Garden

Shaking their future vegetable garden out of glass jars laid out under headings like “Brassicas” and “Roots,” gardeners palmed new varieties and puzzled over plants they hadn’t yet tried. Handfuls of treasures were shared in the first Seed Swap of 2019 held by the King County Seed Lending Library on Saturday, Feb. 2. More than 100 people attended.

Seed Swap 2019 1

Many brought seeds and traded knowledge. Non-profit groups , including Tilth Alliance, P-Patch and the Seattle Tree Fruit Society, shared information at tables and in workshops.

KUOW’s reporter Ruby de Luna stopped by and recorded some interviews with coordinator Bill Thorness and some attendees for a very nice piece that aired on the public radio station on Tuesday, Feb. 5. Read and listen to it here.

Here are a few more images of the event:

Seed Swap 2019 5
Seed Swap 2019 4
Seed Swap 2019 3
Seed Swap 2019 2